Lives of the fellows

Stuart Jasper Cowell

b.9 February 1891 d.1 August 1971
MRCS LRCP(1915) MB BChir Cantab(1920) MRCP(1922) FRCP(1935)

Stuart Cowell was the son of Jasper Cowell, architect, and his wife Alice Marshall. Some twenty years before his birth, his father was advised, on grounds of health, to emigrate with his whole family to Texas, USA. Returning on a visit to England, after his family had grown up and settled, he married again. Stuart Cowell was the younger son of this second marriage, the elder being Major-General Sir Ernest Cowell, Army Medical Service.

He was educated at Steyning and Brighton Grammar Schools, Queen’s College, Cambridge and University College Hospital, London. In 1912, he obtained a first class in the natural sciences tripos. In 1914, like many medical students of his generation, he went into the army as a combatant but in 1915 he was sent home for six months to complete his medical education. Thereafter he returned to war service until demobilized in 1919. He was then appointed a house physician at University College Hospital. Next year, after graduating MB, BChir, he became an assistant in the medical professorial unit, under T.R. Elliott, which had now come into existence following the pre-war recommendations of the Haldane Committee on University Education in London.

Cowell had been at Cambridge in the period when biochemistry, under the inspired leadership of Gowland Hopkins, was rapidly establishing its relevance to medical problems. With this background, he was keenly interested in the classical results that were then emerging in the field of clinical disorders consequent on malnutrition. This remained with him throughout his life and it is in connection with his work on the numerous scientific, national and international committees on nutrition that he was best known to his contenporaries. But essentially Cowell was a biochemically orientated physician and his interests went wider than classical dietetics, into subjects like the effect of iodine on hyperthyroidism and the influence of calcium intake on stone formation in the presence of kidney damage. It was this wider orientation that led naturally to his next appointment.

Professor (later Sir Edward) Mellanby had been appointed to the Chair of Pharmacology at Sheffield. As such he had not only facilities for laboratory work, but charge of a number of beds for clinical research. Mellanby, however, was primarily a laboratory experimentalist and, accordingly, he made it a condition of accepting the post that he should have a suitably orientated physician as his assistant. The Medical Research Council (with which T.R. Elliott was closely connected) were anxious to help Mellanby in this respect. Cowell was the obvious man. It thus came about that, only two years after being appointed to Elliott at UCH, he went with Mellanby to Sheffield. There he remained until 1929 when, again being the obvious man, he was appointed to the newly-endowed chair of dietetics in the University of London which was situated first at St. Thomas’s and then, from 1936 onwards, at University College Hospital Medical School. Over this period he continued his researches and produced many papers that centred on aspects of nutrition in the wide sense he understood it.

The outbreak of the second world war in 1939 marked a turning point in Cowell’s life. Because of the threat of air raids his laboratories were closed, and the young men in research who used to consult him disappeared. He looked for where he could help, and installed himself as a clinical pathologist in one of the peripheral hospitals to which his own hospital had been evacuated. He was always there, always willing to fill any gap. So he became drawn into organizing the make-shift medical schools of that period. Gradually he discovered within himself an unsuspected organizing ability. He was an ideal chief-of-staff and this was recognized in 1943 when he was appointed Vice-Dean of the Medical School, which post he retained until his retirement. By the end of the war he had become invaluable to the running of the School and Hospital in the complicated years that saw the introduction of the National Health Service. He served as a member of the Board of Governors of UCH and on the North-Western Regional Hospitals Board from 1947 to 1956. After the war he did not return to the laboratory, although he remained a valued member of many expert committees on nutrition, and was the United Kingdom delegate to the conference on protein requirements called by the Food and Agriculture Organization. He retired in 1956, when the title of Emeritus Professor in the University of London was conferred upon him.

Temperamentally, Cowell was quiet and unobtrusive to a fault. It was this that prevented him making much more of his undoubted ability and knowledge. But he was always there when help was needed and his high standards and tenacity in difficulties earned him the respect of students and colleagues alike. In 1925 he married May Penelope Smith who was herself medically qualified. She, with her keen sense of humour, was his ideal counterpart. They adopted three children and the outstanding success of this venture was a testimony to them both.

Sir Harold Himsworth

[, 1971, 3, 436; Lancet, 1971, 2, 384; Times, 4 Aug 1971]

(Volume VI, page 124)

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